On TV, Cousteau Revisits Alaska Oil Spill

OUTRAGE AT VALDEZ TBS Superstation (basic-cable), Sunday, 10-11 p.m. Check local listings for repeats. Produced by the Cousteau Society. IF you can't guess how the Cousteau Society feels about America's worst oil spill ever, the ominous music accompanying footage of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker will give you a hint. The seals and birds that seem to scatter at its approach - an effect created by alternating shots of the mammoth hull with footage of squealing wildlife - will give you another hint.

There is also a homespun lack of slickness about this production, apparent in everything from titles to lighting; the tone subtly suggests the penurious ``little guy'' being beaten up by the money-grubbing baddies of Big Oil.

Last but not least, there is the title.

None of these invalidate the message being sent - that the effects of the spill were devastating, that there was a tragic lack of preparedness, and that there is a crying need for better regulation. But the viewer can never quite escape the nagging question: ``How objective is this appraisal?''

In recent months, news organizations have been learning - from returning journalists stymied by information embargoed because of pending lawsuits - what the answer might be: ``Objectivity might not be be possible; watch anyway.''

``Outrage at Valdez'' does ask the right questions: Why weren't we better prepared after the major spills worldwide in recent years? What damage was done to beaches and wildlife? How much has the clean-up helped? What long-term lessons can be learned from the accident?

En route to the film's answers, the viewer sees a variety of images - maps which show that, if transposed to the East Coast, the oil slick would have stretched from New York City to Miami; footage of fishing fleets trying to contain and remove the oil; interviews with fisherman, clean-up workers, and officials from the government and Exxon.

The undeniable strength of this film is the visceral impact of the images. The pristine majesty of Prince William Sound is astounding. The devastation to wildlife and beaches is heart-rending. One gets a vivid feeling for the logistical nightmare involved in a clean-up that has cost billions of dollars.

``The world watched a mammoth company from the most powerful nation on earth [reduced to] paper towels, hands and knees, [cleaning] a single rock at a time,'' notes Jean-Michel Cousteau.

Along with other recent film inquiries into the spill - notably ``NOVA's'' ``The Big Spill'' in February, and the Discovery Channel's ``Black Tide'' - the Cousteau Society effort underlines the need for public concern - and action.

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